Shooting for Bill T. Jones can be difficult. It’s not like working with other choreographers. Bill’s recent pieces can be described as “dance stories”; the words are as important as the steps. It’s not easy capturing an intimate narrative with still photographs. The words are always lost. Shooting for Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance is a quest to find the moments of physical emotion and fix them on film.
Last week I spent three days with the company photographing Bill’s new piece, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane. It is a modern form of theatrical dance, revolving around the stories and memories of Dora Amelan; her life in Belgium under the Nazi occupation during WWII. Dora is the mother of Bjorn Amelan, Bill’s partner and husband. Bjorn is the long time creative director of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance.
I’ve heard about Dora over the years while photographing Bill’s other “story” pieces. During the dances with voice, Bill or his dancers speak often speak during the choreography, and much of the time it can be autobiographical. It’s through these stories I first learned of Dora along with many anecdotes about Bill’s life. Story/Time is one of my favorites in this style. The piece varies with each performance and the tales evolve over time. It is a series of 70 one minute vignettes, mostly about Bill’s life.
As a person of Jewish descent who grew up in a largely Jewish community, I’m likely struck by Dora’s story more than other people. Growing up, I remember workers in local stores or people walking down the street with numbers tattooed on their arms, the numbers slightly blurred due to the ink bleeding through the skin over time. Philip Drell, my best friend’s father in my tween years and the man who first taught me photography, was with the first army group to enter the Dachau concentration camp, filming the camp’s liberation. His photographs are an important part of the Holocaust Chronicles. My father told me that the Russian town where my family immigrated from at the end of the 19th century was completely destroyed during the Nazi’s march eastward through Russia. I don’t believe in God or religion but the Holocaust is still part of my family’s and friends’ histories. Photographing for Bill T. Jones is hard enough without the distraction of Dora’s captivating story.
Day #1. I’ve got three days to learn and shoot Analogy/Dora. As always I arrive early (despite missing my stop on the New Jersey Transit train). I relax for a moment in the front row of the theater, pulling together my cameras and deciding where in the house I should stand to get the images I need. Having two stage rehearsals, three dress rehearsals, and a performance in front of me, I hope to find a few new angles to shoot from. Unfortunately, five footlights across the front of the stage limit my possibilities. That’s part of shooting live dance!
I need to warm up. It’s an emotional-visual-cerebral process. Like a dancer, all of my parts have to function as a whole if I am going to do my best work. I slowly begin to photograph the dancers as they stretch on stage and begin to work on the choreography, mostly alone but occasionally with another dancer. I want to shoot from the front edge of the stage but that’s not working. I stay in the orchestra pit anyway, hoping I’ll discover something I’m not yet seeing. At this point, I have no idea what the dance is about, how long the piece is, or what section the company is now rehearsing. I’m not worried. It’s always like this. I turn away from the stage and try to get a few snaps of Bill in the theater while he directs the dancers. I’m not always successful when trying this. Bill’s work ethic is intense and nothing is more important than that day’s rehearsal. I don’t want to be a distraction or get in his way. Today I’m determined and I fire off a few bursts of pictures.
After lunch, the dress rehearsal begins. I move about the auditorium trying to find interesting angles but I keep coming back to my usual spot in the theater, centered, and enough rows back where my camera is at a level just below the dancers’ chests. I don’t like distortion in my performance photos and any lower or higher ruins my perspective. I photograph, I watch, and I learn the piece. There are periods of the dance with very little movement; dancers speaking along with an intense and very moving musical score. I begin to listen to Dora’s words, spoken alternately by different dancers during the piece. Sometimes I’m so mesmerized by the words I have to put down my camera and just listen.
I missed a lot of important shots. The first time I photograph Bill’s “story” pieces it seems he’s always one step ahead of me. The jumps come at unexpected places and even after working with him for eleven years, I’m still not ready. There is a reason for this. Bill’s dances are always in a state of flux. What you see on stage one day may not be exactly what you see on the next. The music changes. The steps change to match the music. The movement of the sets is recalibrated, changing the timing of the dancers. I can see it in my pictures. I can shoot the same moment three days in a row but the relationship of the dancers to each other has changed with each rehearsal. The dancers have to be geniuses to figure this stuff out! When I get lost I zoom in close. I’ve always seen dance as a portrait anyway. This is easier for me. There are fewer distractions within the frame; only one or two dancers and nothing of the set. I can concentrate completely on my composition and the emotion of the performers.
Day #2. This time I get off at the right train stop and begin the afternoon more relaxed. There will be another stage rehearsal where I can warm up and later in the day, the dress rehearsal. I have a lot of images in my head I want to capture. There seems to be more tension in the theater than usual but I’m ignoring it. It’s typical during the days before an opening, with every company. But today it’s greater than my understanding of the situation. I’m too focused on my own work to truly sense the tension. Bill doesn’t hide it. He never does. He has a vision and he will bring everyone, dancers, sound, music, and lighting to a point as close as possible to what he sees in his head. I understand it completely. I’m the same way with my photography.
Bill doesn’t feel like the company is ready for a dress rehearsal. The emotion of the piece isn’t right. Bits of the choreography need to be worked out. Bill asks the company what they think. I-Ling Liu quickly agrees and lets Bill know which of her sections need more work. Mostly everyone is silent. Guests are coming in from New York Live Arts to watch the dress rehearsal. Bill doesn’t care. I need the photos for The New York Times. Bill asks, no tells me, “Didn’t you shoot yesterday’s dress rehearsal! You have pictures!” I know Bill doesn’t want to hear that yesterday was my “practice” shoot and today’s pictures would be much better. I just agree. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what I think. What I shot on Day #1 will have to be good enough for The Times and most likely it is. Absolute perfection isn’t always necessary and certainly not always possible.
Kyle Maude, the company’s production manager and the person who organizes my shoots, tells me I can leave if I feel like it. Today’s rehearsal now involves perfecting the piece. There’s a lot of discussion but not much movement. Tomorrow I still have a dress rehearsal and performance to shoot. The company has limited use for stage rehearsal pictures in sweat clothes and t-shirts covered in logos. That’s all I will get today. I tell Kyle I’m going to stay and spend the afternoon learning the choreography and concentrate on getting some good pictures of Bill. There’s rarely time at a rehearsal to focus on the choreographer working along side the dancers. Most of the pictures you see are silly set up shots with little feeling. This was my chance to get something real and special.
Day #3. I rent a car for the day. I need more equipment to shoot the final dress and opening performance. I want to make sure my life is as easy as possible and dragging the cameras and tripod to New Jersey on the train would not have been pleasant.
I got to the theater very early. I have a lot of time to emotionally prepare for the pictures ahead of me. I set up for the dress rehearsal and go backstage to watch the dancers take class. Before an important shoot I need to settle into the theater and watch the dancers move about the stage. Time slows for me. Their physicality becomes my visual strength. I take on the personality of the choreography. I learn the dancer who will have an unknown emotional strength, making them the best person on the stage on that given day. That dancer will be the person I work off of for most of the performance. They will lead me to the best pictures.
I normally don’t think much during the dress rehearsal. It’s all technical. Everything is a reaction to what I see through the lens. I knew I wanted to get some group shots for the company’s marketing use. I hoped to catch a few of the energetic moments where the dancers lined up along the stage, fitting into my style of composition.
I still found myself listening to Dora’s story. I was beginning to understand it now, the progression of time and how the choreography and musical score related to her words. I guess the extra stage rehearsal helped me understand. Often the story was one of despair, friends and family shipped to concentration camps, dying slow deaths from starvation and disease. Other times she managed to find memories of laughter and joy, thoughts of fresh mountain air or the spontaneous performances by Marcel Marceau. It was always about survival. I tried to split my brain in two, one side listening to Dora’s story, the other focused on the dress rehearsal, trying to capture the movement and emotions that matched her words.
I wasn’t sure about the pictures I got that afternoon. I knew I wanted more but my last chance at Analogy/Dora was that night’s premiere. I planned to shoot from the side of the theater, in the back behind the sound booth. It’s not at a great angle to the stage plus I would have to use a sound blimp over the camera to quiet the shutter’s noise. It’s not my favorite way to work. I figured anything I got would be “icing on the cake” as the saying goes. I could relax and try to capture a few of the moments in the dance I felt I had missed during the rehearsals.
As I was setting up my tripod for the performance, I noticed an open space in the lighting booth behind me. I checked out the space and it was perfect. I would be out of the way of the tech crew and not only was it almost centered to the stage but it was also covered with glass so I could shoot away without worrying about the noise from my camera.
I moved my equipment into the booth and set up for the shoot. I decided to use the camera with the longest zoom lens. It’s heavy and needs more stage light than the other lenses but it also allows me to capture everything I see, from half the stage to half-body closeups. I might miss a lot due to slow shutter speeds and blurred movement but when I got something it would be great.
I warmed up as I always do before a performance, focusing on audience members moving through the theater. I caught a glimpse of Janet Wong, the company’s assistant artistic director, moving along the side of the house, almost in complete darkness and shot off a few frames. She looked magical in the dramatic theater light.
The show began and I soon realized the booth was not wired for sound. I could hardly hear the music and the voices were muffled at best. I’ve always photographed dance to the music. It’s how I understand where the dancers will be on stage in the next moment. In a way, it was like shooting blind. Then I realized in some ways this was a blessing. I could no longer hear Dora’s story. There was nothing to distract me from the action on the stage. Without the story, I had a better sense of the choreography. I shot a ridiculous amount of pictures… well over 2,000 images just during the performance! That was after shooting 2,700 images during the dress rehearsal. At times I had to put down the heavy camera to give my hands a rest.
Dora Amelan was in the audience. I met her before the show. The theater was still empty except for a few crew members and the two of us. We spoke for a minute. I felt like I already knew her; could see into her soul. At 94, she’s still a strong and enchanting woman.
Every now and then while shooting I would think of Dora, mostly during the moments where the dancers stood and spoke her story. The words tonight I could not hear. I wondered what she looked like as a young woman of 19 at the time of the occupation? She lost some of the best years of her life to the Nazis. I thought my 20s were interesting and difficult years! I wouldn’t want to live through that time again. In my wildest dreams, I can’t imagine how Dora feels. My life was a family picnic compared to hers. I tried very hard but I’m not sure I captured that emotion on film. Shooting for Bill T. Jones can be so difficult.